Black Women Playwrights in Britain, 1993

Context

This essay on Black Women Playwrights in Britain was researched from 1989-1992 and published in 1993. When Trevor Griffiths and Margaret Llewellyn-Jones suggested I write it I initially asked a number of black women colleagues if they would like to take this on instead: the general response was that they were too busy doing the creative work of making art and meeting the burgeoning need to give voice to experiences largely marginalised in the theatre till then. Drawing on my research on women playwrights and knowledge built through New Playwrights Trust and work with Second Wave Young Women Playwrights Festival, I agreed to write the essay.  I make no huge claims for it now, except in terms of the range of work it drew attention to and explored, both in the number of writers it documented and addressed and also the variety of theatrical styles they were exploring and subjects and experiences they were focused on, especially in a context where (see below) this work had been very little noticed and addressed at that time.

Back Street Mammy Prog

In my experience theatre researchers and historians tend to explore the recognised and outstanding individual works and playwrights and rarely do the groundwork to uncover the sheer volume of theatrical activity taking place which create the groundswell from which it grows. The earlier or more ‘marginal’ work of playwrights learning their craft or making a living gets ignored and forgotten, but also what is missed in this context is the extent of how far work was informed by ardent and animated debate, across the alternative theatre sector, within feminism, within Black feminism, within lesbian feminism, and all their various intersections, in companies themselves, in support organisations (like Women In Entertainment, Conference of Women Theatre Directors and Administrators), in friendship groups, looking at what worked, what it achieved and what it didn’t, artistic vocabularies, audiences, working processes, debates which, while they could occasionally inhibit with judgmentalism, could also inspire with a sense of larger purpose and excitement in a burgeoning field of  artistic and political responsibility and possibility.  The essay followed the practice of the time of using the word Black to include Asian, as a political alliance and movement (argument and fissuring of that term would come later).

The following is what I wrote about the essay in my PhD by Publications Re-writing the record: women’s history as playwrights (University of East Anglia, 2007). Playwrights given in bold below have entries in my book …She Also Wrote Plays: an International Guide to Women Playwrights from the 10th to the 21st Century (Faber and Faber, 2001) which, along with two essays in Griffiths and Llewellyn-Jones, were submitted as key publications.

Susan Croft, 2020

 You can download the original essay as a PDF at the end

“Black Women Playwrights in Britain” in British and Irish Women Dramatists Since 1958 ed. Trevor M. Griffiths and Margaret Llewellyn-Jones, (Open University Press, 1993)

This essay came about after I was approached with April de Angelis to contribute a piece on collaborative and experimental theatre to the collection British and Irish Women Dramatists Since 1958 and asking whether they were including a piece on black and Asian women’s work discovered that the editors were not aware of the significant body of work by British black and Asian women playwrights in the 1980s, its great range, quality and quantity. My own work at New Playwrights Trust and Second Wave and my writing on Theatre of Black Women for The Plot had made me very conscious of the growth of this area and the need to document it. NPT had as a central plank of policy and one of its definitions of ‘new playwrights’ to encourage work from groups ‘new to and under-represented in the theatre industry’[i]. It was important that this book, one of the first surveys of the great breadth of work produced in this era, should not reproduce, in the area of black and Asian women’s work, the same process of erasure and rendering invisible of a body of work which it was itself striving to combat in relation to women’s work overall. My essay was the first survey of this area of work, mapping the emergence of a body of work by, especially, African-Caribbean women playwrights and later by Asian women, and identifying its forerunners. I traced their formal and thematic concerns, including discussing plays addressing the experience of immigration and the relationship of second generation immigrants to their parents’ experience and country of origin as well as Asian bilingual work. I explored some of the new writing initiatives and companies, including young people’s theatres, which supported and produced this work.

Such was the growth of work in this area that in the time lag between effective completion of the essay (c1991) and the Open University’s publication of the book there were already many new names who ideally should have been documented, the inevitable – and welcome – hazard of working in a dynamic contemporary field. As in much of my later work I was concerned to document as wide a range of unpublished and little-known work as possible, as well as the better-known and published names, to counteract the marginalisation of black theatre and the fact that as much of it took place on the ‘fringe’ it was then in particular unlikely to be published or even reviewed nationally. I drew on reviews in Spare Rib[ii] and City Limits to document little-known productions and sought to identify and acknowledge, where possible, work happening outside London such as that of Cindy Artiste in Manchester or Jyoti Patel with Jez Simons in Leicester. The research materials gathered for this project also later formed the nucleus of the bibliography of published black and Asian British plays (Croft, 2000) and an ongoing handlist of unpublished plays as well as a collection of black theatre scripts at Theatre Museum.

Also in 1993 Lizbeth Goodman’s Contemporary Feminist Theatres: To Each Her Own appeared (written 1992). It devoted a chapter to black feminist theatres, looking at the work of Theatre of Black Women, Talawa and its director Yvonne Brewster, Sistren, Black Mime Theatre Women’s Troop as well as plays by Djanet Sears and Gcina Mhlope. Her focus was primarily but not exclusively on Britain, but looked at companies, directors and trends and their relation to feminism/s rather than at the work of playwrights. Subsequent books have addressed the work of a number of black women in theatre or companies in the context of examinations of British feminist theatre or women playwrights including: Elaine Aston, 1995 (discusses Yvonne Brewster, Theatre of Black Women, Jacqueline Rudet) and Elaine Aston, 2003 (discusses Tamasha, Winsome Pinnock, SuAndi and touches on work by Jenny McLeod and Tanika Gupta). Collections of interviews by Stephenson and Langridge (1997) include three black or Asian women: Gupta, McLeod and, Pinnock (out of 20) while Goodman and De Gay (1996) include six interviews: Yvonne Brewster, Bernardine Evaristo and Theatre of Black Women, Denise Wong, Kristine Landon-Smith and Tamasha, Jackie Kay, and Deborah Baddoo (out of 48).  Ponnuswami, 2000 gives a broader chronology of black women’s contributions to British theatre as well as a survey of contemporary work including Trish Cooke, Pinnock, Kay and Zindika. While the significance of Winsome Pinnock’s work, for example, is undoubted, the concentration of many of these critics on a small number of women forecloses critical attention for the broader field, much of which remains under-documented and critically neglected. Recently more extensive analyses have appeared in Dimple Godiwala’s and finally, in 2003, Gabrielle Griffin’s full-length consideration of the field Contemporary Black and Asian Women Playwrights in Britain appeared, looking in detail at the work of 35 women, addressing in particular issues of migration, identity, racism and sexism. There are still however many black and Asian women playwrights, especially outside London, as well as new voices emerging nationally like that of debbie tucker green (sic) and the Asian women writers supported by Kali Theatre Company whose work deserves more critical attention.

Books Referred to:

Aston, Elaine. (1995), An Introduction to Feminism and Theatre (London: Routledge).

Aston, Elaine. (2003), Feminist Views on the English Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Godiwala, Dimple, ed. (2006), Alternatives Within the Mainstream 1: British Black and Asian Theatres (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press).

Goodman, Lizbeth. (1993), Contemporary Feminist Theatres: To Each Her Own (London:  Routledge).

Griffin, Gabriele. (2003), Contemporary Black and Asian Women Playwrights in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Ponnuswami, Meenakshi. (2000), ‘Small Island People: black British women playwrights’ pp. 217-234. In Aston, Elaine and Reinelt, Janelle, eds. (2000), The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

You can download the original essay as a PDF here

[i] An earlier version of the constitution described groups ‘under-represented or misrepresented in the theatre industry’, a reflection of the identity politics of the time (1986), the implication of which was that for a non-white playwright’s work to represent black experience was misrepresentation and appropriation when black playwrights’ self-representations were not being staged. By this analysis my essay itself was a misrepresentation. It seemed more important that the work be documented and begun to be written into the histories and I was the person with the relevant knowledge and interest. Ironically the editors’ decision to combine the bibliographical lists of playwrights for all the essays in the book into one listing made them once more invisible, as black or Asian, and indistinguishable from other work, erasing the specific focus given the more than 50 women playwrights I had discovered in researching the essay.

[ii] Spare Rib’s theatre reviews are an interesting history of theatre and feminism. In early issues theatre is largely notable by its absence from discussion unlike film and literature. Later reviews begin to appear, but the majority are of plays by men viewed from a feminist perspective.  Then women writers begin to appear, but many of the reviews reflect the ideological preoccupations of the magazine and consider plays only as bearers of a message, politically correct or otherwise, not as an art form, though some treat work with more sophistication. They do however provide a useful record of feminist work that was not reviewed elsewhere, especially work by black women.